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Should violent criminals be allowed on social media?

The successful TikTok career of a US school shooter has raised questions around the accessibility of online spaces. 

Many people dream of going viral on social media. After all, it promises overnight fame and widespread influence.

The growing capability of almost anyone to gain internet notoriety has increasingly aroused controversy. Whether it’s a seemingly mindless dance video or a unique soundbite, people are turning into overnight sensations – and capitalising on it – for doing what looks like, well, nothing at all.

But a recent TikTok star has drawn a different kind of criticism, after amassing hundreds-of-thousands of followers despite his controversial background.

Jon Romano, a school shooter who was released from prison in 2020, has gone viral on the video streaming platform for publicly talking about his actions. Many believe he shouldn’t be allowed on social media at all.

Romano served 17 years of a 20-year prison sentence for bringing a shotgun to Columbia High School in upstate New York in 2004. He was 16 years old at the time, and shot a teacher in the leg after the principal attempted to wrestle the gun from him.

While nobody was killed by Romano’s actions, he told police at the time that he had ‘fantasies for about the last year of going in Columbia and shooting up the place [sic].’

Now Romano has over 250,000 followers and 7 million likes on TikTok, where he talks about his actions and the lessons he has ostensibly learnt from them.

In his TikTok bio, Romano writes ‘After being part of the problem, it’s time to be a part of the solution.’

Romano tells viewers he’s sorry for the trauma and suffering he caused those involved at Columbia High school, and has become an unlikely figurehead for gun reform in the process.

‘Now I do my best to talk to people, to answer questions and hopefully make change so that other communities, other people don’t go through what my victims did.’

Some might argue that Romano’s intentions are admirable, and may even prevent future school shooters from following in his footsteps.

But at the same time, seeing a violent criminal not only free, but with a successful internet career, sends a message that doing something inherently evil won’t stop you from enjoying a good life.

Others are calling out the white privilege that has enabled Romano to live as he is now.

‘People are conveniently forgetting that by platforming him and hailing him as a hero for his gun reform, his victims WHO ARE STILL AROUND and suffered greatly because of what he did are continually being traumatised,’ one Instagram user commented.

‘He wanted to be famous and how he’s found a way. He should not be on social media,’ said another.

Indeed, but giving Romano a platform and following, we are granting him a level of fame that many school shooters aspire to (for some, fame is the primary reason they commit the crime at all).

While Romano is the first school shooter to appear on TikTok, NowThisNews have pointed out that at a time where school shootings and social media are both ever-present in teenagers’ lives, he certainly won’t be the last.

Perhaps that is what makes his case so disturbing.

Considering divergent political views can be shadow banned from platforms like TikTok at the touch of a button, it’s not surprising that so many are disturbed by Romano’s success.

Are we ushering in a new era where violent criminals and social media influencers are not mutually exclusive; where it’s openly acceptable to follow a gunman on TikTok?

If so, how do we police this? Can – and should – we have the power to decide who and what is allowed on social media? Is social media a human right or a privilege?

Since amassing a slew of negative comments, Romano has closed down his TikTok account. But it may only be a matter of time before similar individuals appear across social media – and successfully, too.